Healing ...on reuniting Salvadorans

Date: 1999-11-08

By Jerry Pockar

When Fr. Jon de Cortina, SJ, heard the report of the murders of the Jesuits on November 16, 1989, his own name was listed among the dead. I touched myself to make sure I was alive, he told the New York Times.

It could easily have been otherwise. Cortina, from Bilbao, Spain, was a parish priest and a professor of engineering at the University of Central America (UCA). Had he not been at his parish residence in Chaletenango province that night, he might have been one of the Jesuits who were awakened to die.

Cortina's survival has been important to the 9,000 parishioners he serves as pastor in the neighborhood of Guarjila. Working with donations, he has engineered rebuilding in the area and provided shelter and work for Salvadoran families whose lives were rent by more than a decade of savage conflict and the army's scorched-earth policy. My big drive, Cortina says, comes from being in contact with the little ones and the peasants in Chaletenango. For me this is a great source of strength.

Healing has been the primary thrust of the pastoral work of Cortina, who has lived in El Salvador since 1955 and is a Salvadoran citizen. Shortly before the killings he began serving communities being repopulated in the wake of the violence that had emptied villages. UCA professor Dean Brackley, SJ, observes, During the war, he [Cortina] and [Segundo] Montes, especially, attended communities displaced by the war. Dangerous work.

Following the November cataclysm, Cortina continued walking the path he had shared with his slain colleagues. When peace came, he emerged as a linchpin of the U.N.-sponsored Truth Commission effort in Chaletenango, recording the testimonies of war victims. In Salvador we had the first experience of a truth commission in Central America, the priest says. It worked, although the number of cases forced us to deal with groups of cases. We had to present the report in five months, and we had no time to investigate individual cases. I think it was a good effort. The problem was that right after the Truth Commission report, the amnesty came. Nothing could be done against all the persons who had committed human rights violations.

However elusive healing truth may be, five years ago Cortina began a foray into another dimension of the war's dark mysteries. In taking testimonies for the commission, he heard about numerous children taken by the Salvadoran army abducted from the battle zones of Chaletenango. Things were not clear, but the supposition was that many had wound up in orphanages and had been adopted. During the early 1980s, El Salvador was a prime source of infants for Americans and Europeans seeking to adopt.

In the spring of 1994, Cortina and Ralph Sprenkels, a 25-year-old native of the Netherlands, launched Asociaciùn Pro-Búsqueda de Niñas y Niños Desaparecidos, or Association in Search of Disappeared Children. Sprenkels had worked in a Salvadoran refugee camp in Mexico, and the Salvadorans had captured his heart. A lanky and ebullient Dutchman with a passionate dedication to human rights, Sprenkels became the main force in Pro-Búsquedas day-to-day activities.

Pro-Búsqueda, which has become a media magnet, has been the subject of a voluminous article in the February Times Sunday magazine and front-page stories in the Times, the Boston Globe, and many other papers. Other communications vehicles as varied as 60 Minutes and Good Housekeeping have featured the powerful human dramas Cortinas organization has unearthed.

As the Times put it, Pro-Búsqueda has collected testimonies from women whose children were yanked out of their arms and shoved into helicopters while they watched, screaming, and soldiers told them their children would now be reared to serve the nation, not subvert it. Pro-Búsqueda does more than collect testimonies; it is working with over 500 cases of families searching for children.

Children such as Peter Cassidy of Princeton, New Jersey, who on August 28, 1984, was Ernesto Sibrian, a two-year-old in Guarjila. On that afternoon, the infant was in his mother's arms when she was shot. The bullet that killed her remains lodged in the teenagers arm. Through Pro-Búsqueda's offices, Peter was reunited with his family in Guarjila. He grieved at his mother's grave and began a new relationship with his sister Lilian, who was six when she watched her mother die.

Or children like Gina Craig. Like Peter, Gina was wounded in 1984. She was six. In that attack by the Salvadoran air force, Gina's sister was killed by shrapnel. Gina, whose name was Imelda Lopez Lainez then, was taken to a rebel field hospital. When the hospital was attacked by the army, the soldiers took her to an orphanage in San Salvador. Within a year she was adopted by Tom and Stephanie Craig of Akron, Ohio.

Sprenkels did the detective work, and Dr. Robert Kirshner, Pro-Búsqueda's Physicians for Social Responsibility colleague, confirmed through DNA testing that Gina was Imelda Lopez Lainez. There was a happy family reunion recorded by 60 Minutes, but before long the girl was estranged from her U.S. family and unable to return to the Salvadoran family with whom she no longer shared language, culture, or values. Now a mother herself, Gina remains betwixt and between, but she has been reunited with the Craigs and remains in contact with her family in El Salvador.

Fairy-tale endings are hard to come by in the Land of the Savior, as Gina Craigs case illustrates, but Pro-Búsqueda pushes on and has made 98 such matches so far. Sprenkels and his team of fourteen have found children in Salvadoran street gangs, living with Salvadoran army officers, in orphanages, and in Europe as well as in many parts of the United States.

It cannot be claimed that all of Pro-Búsqueda's children were abducted by the government military. No explanation as to why Yanira Prokop was at an orphanage in the city of Santa Tecla has been uncovered; her origins remain lost in the chaos of El Salvador in the early 1980s. However, what Pro-Búsqueda did for this Ohio teenager seemed miraculous and was indisputably healing.

One afternoon in October of 1998, I received a call in my office at John Carroll University in suburban Cleveland from Sprenkels. He had discovered that Yanira, my stepdaughter, had a brother, Joe Dallesandro, formerly Jose Hernandez. He was living nearby. Joe, 18 months older, remembered Yanira, but she, separated from him when she was less than three, had no recollection of a big brother.

Nothing can ever describe the first hug, said Yanira after they met. She and Joe are now busy building a relationship. When Yanira met Sprenkels and Fr. Cortina in a San Salvador hotel that December, she thanked them for having found the brother she didn't know she had, and they thanked her for being a piece of the puzzle they are trying to put together: the complex puzzle of a fractured nation with thousands of families torn asunder.

The writer in the Sunday Times wrote: The experience of the disappeared children and their families shows that uncovering the past and righting what can in some small measure be righted is painful and disruptive. But for most of them, it has produced some kind of reconciliationand they may be the only victims of the war to have achieved it.

Reconciliation is another word for healing, and healing, through truth and justice, is the mission of Fr. Cortina. The shy, gentle Basque says that he is fed by his people in Chaletenango and by the memory of his slain brothers: Knowing that they were committed to truth and justice and that they were faithful up to the last moment helps also my desire to commit myself to truth and justice.


Fr. Jon de Cortina, SJ, who escaped death that November night in 1989 by chance, practices the art of healing in El Salvador by reuniting families separated by violence.

"Miraculous and . . . indisputably healing" is how the author describes the reunion of his stepdaughter Yanira with her brother, Joe. The two, separated in El Salvador years ago, met once again in Ohio.

Jerry Pockar, university editor at John Carroll University in Cleveland, reports that his stepdaughter Yanira plans on volunteering with Pro-Búsqueda next summer.


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